New Jersey Department of Education

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Episode 18: Reflections

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


[calm background music]

Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest.

I’m excited today to be talking about reflections on remote education. We’re going to be hearing from one of my colleagues here at the Department of Education, as well as listening in on voice memos from educators from throughout the state.

Before we jump in though, I’d like to congratulate Dr. Repollet for a successful tenure at the Department of Education here in New Jersey. He’s moving on in his career to a new venture and we are excited for what the future will hold.

I’d also like to say that I’m excited for the new interim Commission, Kevin Dehmer, to lead us through this current context and into the summer and the new school year.

Another note for listeners, especially for those who join us regularly on our hashtag NJ Ed Partners Twitter third Tuesday Twitter chat, is that this Twitter chat, which will be on July 21, 2020, is going to have a guest moderator, Cory Radisch, who I’m going to be interviewing during this next segment.

Cory regularly attends our Twitter chats, and I’m so excited to have him join all of you in this capacity. And I plan to be back in August to talk about whatever topic we tackle.

As you listen to today’s episode, pay attention to the number of times collaboration and teamwork come up. We here at the Department of Education believe that educator collaboration is at the core of success of educational institutitons.

[transition music]

Cory Radisch, Continuous Improvement Specialist, NJDOE

Cory: Yeah, hello. Um, my name is Cory Radisch. I am a Continuous Improvement Specialist for the Office of Comprehensive Support.

Ken: So can you tell me a little bit about the educators that you work with in the Office of Comprehensive Support? You’re in the central region, correct?

Cory: Yeah, that is correct. I work with educators from across the state. And I gotta say, I work with amazing people, you know. The work that we’re doing in our office to try to help with a little bit of school turnaround and increase performance, and at the same time navigate all the nuances of COVID-19 and – and other things going on in society. The educators have responded in such a way that’s inspiring.

A lot of times the work that we’re doing—we work with a lot of Title I schools. There’s a perception out there about what goes on in these buildings, but I can tell you that the educators and the students of these buildings are incredible. They have a passion that – that burns really brightly for assisting and working to ensure that all kids are getting the education that they need. Tending to all of their social-emotional needs as well.

Ken: I know that you meet with a group of educational leaders in the counties that you work with. And could you just tell me a little bit about some of the reflections that they’ve shared about their time as the school year has come to an end and they reflect on remote education and what it’s meant in their context?

Cory: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think, that like a lot of us, there’s – there’s a lot of – there was a lot of apprehension. There was a lot of comments of building the railroad tracks as the train was coming. But I think in all of that chaos created some amazing moments, that I’ve heard from educators across the state.

The increased collaboration that has gone on, uh, is unprecedented. And educators and leaders in the field are looking to transfer that collaboration into our return. Uh, whether that’s a hybrid return or, you know, full fledge in our schools. Because the collaboration has led to so many possibilities for student learning.

Some of the other reflections that I’ve heard is it…created a movement of educators getting out of their comfort zone. So we know a lot of times in education, change is difficult. Unfortunately, COVID-19 came about. We found out that we can go things that we never did before.

And I think that leaders, and most importantly the teachers that I speak with, they’re excited about the possibilities of how that will transform teaching and learning as we get into the 20-21 school year.

Ken: What examples have you seen of collaboration between educators and educational leaders?

Cory: Sure. So I can speak specifically for our role. We – we work with schools to help create annual school plans. There are many components to those annual school plans. So as part of, even in their—embedded in PLCs [professional learning communities] is virtual meetings, in development of a plan. Creating goals. Creating action steps. Identifying root causes. That sometimes, when we’re in schools, are a little bit limited, you know, due to the time constraints.

Um, working with schools at grade levels, grade levels having more meetings than they’ve had in the past, uh, to really analyze some of the student work that was taking place, uh, during the remote learning sessions. And discussions around assessments. And having those open dialogues really created some road maps for, you know, transformation as – as we move forward.

You know, the biggest thing that I think comes about, not only just with the technological skills people have gained and adapted to, is the understanding that collaboration is one of the key drivers in – in school improvement and increased student growth.

You know, when we go on as from a central regional team, we sometimes have cohorts as big as a hundred – a hundred different schools from across the state. And it created this opportunity for dialogue of practitioners, that we probably don’t get as much as we would like to do.

So, in our department, we had a ten week build for these annual school plans, and educators from around the state were comparing barriers. They were comparing successes and comparing opportunities that would be expanded into their school openings.

Ken: That’s – that’s really an excellent point around collaboration and how, a lot of times, this has forced folks to think outside the box and think about their time and ability to get together with grade-level partners and grade-level teams, and building teams in ways that they might not have before. So thank you for bringing that up.

You know, what words of encouragement do you have for folks as they move from this year of remote instruction into the restart and recovery phase of – of education, as we move into next school year?

Cory: Well, I mean, I think the first thing is to realize that they’re – they’re not alone. Um, you know, utilizing that collaboration that we just spoke about and understanding that even the resources at the NJDOE, we’re here to assist and supply any – any resources that we can to individual districts and/or schools.

I think that the biggest thing that we have to remember is that our kids – there’s gonna be some situations where, uh, you know, students are gonna be reluctant. And we just have to be mindful…as well as our teachers, right? We have to understanding that our teachers are also going to have some of those same apprehensions.

So, the encouragements would be, “let’s make sure that we really tend to the social-emotional, the humanistic side of our work.” And working with young people, as well as, you know, understanding the needs of our – of our educational staff around the state.

And then…and then the last thing for encouragement would be, “we’re not gonna fix everything in a second, in a flash. It’s gonna take time just like anything that gets implemented. So, as you work towards our new normal, just take it day by day, sometimes even hour by hour. And don’t think about the long-term results, so to speak, but worry about each moment in time where you can really make that impact.” For leaders on their teaching staff and teaching staff on their students.

Uh, with equity always at the forefront. And obviously that’s became a huge discussion when we looked at devices, uh, being the hands of our students across the state. But maintaining that – that framework around equity in – in devising all the things that we’re going to do moving forward. Just to ensure that, you know, all students are getting the things that they need and that they deserve.

So, you know, if we keep that as a focus and we take it step-by-step, I think we could do great things going into the 20-21 year.

Ken: I want to again thank Cory Radisch for joining me for this interview. I thought that it was impactful and had a lot of great information, as we reflected together on all the amazing things that educators did this school year.

Again, please join Cory on July 21 at 8:30 pm for the #NJEdPartners Twitter chat, which he will be guest hosting this month.

[end of section]

Educator Recordings

Ken: I’d like to transition to some educator recordings. I asked a few educators from around the state to send in recordings of their thoughts and their reflections on the school year. And I got some amazing responses that I’ve very excited to share with you.

First up is Karen from Washington Township Public School in Gloucester County. She’s a seventh grade science teacher.

Karen Carola, Science Teacher

Karen: I felt the distance learning was both challenging and rewarding. Trying to keep our middle school students in mind and the challenges that they were facing at home was one of the hardest parts of planning lessons. But I tried to have some fun too.

We have two sessions through the “Skype a Scientist” program. We connected with Kelli Moran, a geologist and oceanographer from Louisiana State University, and Alex Garcia-Putnam, an archaeologist from the University of Wyoming. Students’ questions showed a high level of interest in these presentations.

We also played a summer-themed Kahoot challenge with our team of students and teachers. The students enjoyed the interaction and the competition. And at the end of the year, we created an online “escape the room” challenge. It was a great end-of-the-year activity.

I think my students were provided with a quality program. I missed the face-to-face interactions with the kids, but technology allowed us to connect with them in other ways, and we stayed safe and healthy.

Cynthia Wiggins, Social Studies Teacher

Cindy: Hi, my name is Mrs. Cindy Wiggins. I am a fifth grade including teacher in Glassboro, New Jersey. My co-teacher is Mrs. Heather Rittman.

We left school on March 16. We hit the virtual ground running. We had a plan and the plan daily was for us to consistently think outside the box, to help promote distance learning to the best of our abilities.

Heather and I planned two amazing virtual writer celebrations. Students had an opportunity to publish and share a favorite piece of writing before a live, virtual audience via Webex.

Well, what’s a celebration without music and dance? We were able to showcase the talents of our eighth graders by having some play a musical instrument and even sing.

I actually, on the last day of the celebration, encouraged all of the audience to join me in the Cupid Shuffle and the Electric Slide. It was an amazing sight to see online.

The special highlight was the presentation about book release. Every student received a personal copy of our class book.

Distance learning did not stop us. Heather and I persisted until we succeeded.

Heather Rittman, Fifth Grade Teacher

Heather: Hi, my name is Heather Rittman. I am from the Thomas E. Bowe School, where I am a fifth grade general education teacher in a co-taught inclusion classroom.

Two goals that my co-teacher, Cindy Wiggins, and I had going into distance learning were to:

  1. Create a sense of normalcy for our students; and
  2. Provide connection despite the isolation.

One of the ways that we sought to achieve this was to maintain our quarterly writers’ celebrations during the third and fourth marking periods. We decide to go virtual and we invited students, staff members, and families to join in a Webex meeting. There, the students were able to share their writing out loud. They were able to receive encouraging compliments from guests in real-time. The guests could attend from home or work. We had parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and more, able to attend.

And really, holding these culminating celebrations, I believe, helped to maintain some of the sense of community and student pride and achievement despite the challenged that we face during distance learning.

Taylor Machulsky, Fifth Grade Teacher

Taylor: Hi, my name is Taylor Machulsky and I’m a fifth grade teacher at the Thomas E. Bowe School in Glassboro, New Jersey.

This has definitely been an interesting year. But I’m very fortunate to work in a school that can be flexible on the fly. This is the case for many of us during these trying times as teachers.

There were so many website to help my class continue our learning. The one that stuck out the most to me was FlipGrid. We used FlipGrid to record ourselves having class discussions about our read aloud, delivering our opinion speeches to the class. And at the end of the year we were able to use FlipGrid to host a virtual field day, which the kids absolutely loved.

I believe virtual learning has helped me become a stronger and more knowledgeable teacher, and I know this will change the way I teach moving forward.

Allison M. Shelley, Special Education English Teacher

Allison: Allison Shelley, Kingsway Regional School District, eleventh grade, special education English teacher.

Teaching virtually was an absolute challenge, especially in the beginning, without a doubt. In this uncertain time, the kids were scared, and having that positivity on the other side of this computer screen made a difference.

And as teachers, we needed to be flexible. If a student needed more time for an assignment, we absolutely gave it to ‘em. And also, praising the effort matters. Anything that they turned in, you said that that effort mattered. And that makes a difference.

Ryan Stickel, Math Teacher

Ryan: Hello. My name is Ryan Stickel and I’m a math teacher at Kingsway Regional Middle School.

Virtual learning was something that I never thought that I’d have to do. Converting a math class to be completely online was very challenging. With the help from YouTube, recorded videos that I did myself for my students, teacher resources online, and one-on-one instruction, I was able to be successful. My success could not have happened without the support from my colleagues and my administration. They motivated me to keep on going and to be the best teacher that I could possibly be.

My students were very successful during this time, and I miss them dearly. I wish them all the luck next year, and I hope I gave them all the tools that they will need to be successful. I will definitely be taking some of the things that I learned during this virtual experience and applying them to my classroom for years to come.

Sarah Reynolds, English Teacher

Sarah: Hi. My name is Sarah Reynolds and I teach at Kingsway Regional School District. I teach, uh, English at the high school and this past year I had tenth and twelfth grade.

This was actually my first year teaching and it was definitely strange to end in a virtual way. That’s something I’ve never conceptualized in my teacher prep programs or any of my thinking about my life as a teacher.

But it did seem to open up a lot of discussions for me with colleagues and with others in the education profession, surrounding different ways that our instruction, and especially our assessment, are becoming more skills-based and are kind of needing to be reworked.

And I think that there’s interesting discussions ahead, and really important discussions surrounding what we do in school, what is really the essential cornerstone. How are we really going to prepare our students for their future? And I think virtual learning has opened up those discussions for everyone.

Lauri Regan, Third Grade Teacher

Lauri: Hi. My name is Lauri Regan. I am a third grade teacher at Tollgate Grammar School, a part of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District.

When reflecting on my experience with remote learning, I found that consistency and communication were most helpful. Consistent daily routines helped build students’ independence and confidence with daily tasks.

Communicating with students each day through morning messages and face-to-face live instruction supported students not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well.

Varying my communication style with parents was also proven to be beneficial. They’re receiving a lot of emails at this time, so I found that sometimes just picking up the phone or offering to host a Google Meet for parents at the end of a week was very meaningful.

I hope these are helpful for you too. Have a great summer vacation.

Steven Lerch, Special Education Math Teacher

Steven: Hi. My name is Steven Lerch. I am a middle school Special Education Math teacher for Wildwood Middle School in the Wildwood Public School District.

What I most worried about during this time, and when we first realized that we were going to be remote learning and teaching from home, was my own personal students, who…uh, were in a sixth-grade source math class. My students need a great deal of structure throughout the day.

So once we developed a schedule, um, you know, we were given our schedules by our administration team. And we got the schedules out to our students and to our parents. And we got the proper technology into our students’ hands.

Now, my students need, you know, repetition. And they need to --- to have the same thing going on every day. This was tough. This was very tough for them to get used to. And it was tough for myself too. I mean, we are so used to being in class together. You can tell right away if a student’s not having a great day, and you can assist them in that way. But it was tough because students didn’t always want to go on the camera, and, you know, show their face.

So not being able to see them smile and everything. Right away, that kind of, you know, that was tough. But once our structure got into place and we set our times, it started to flow a little better.

I know there were a lot of interactive whiteboards and things like that that you could use, but Jamboard was all housed in my Google Drive when I would complete the work and save it. So, Jamboard gave me a way to show my students examples. And with our – our math program, everything’s right online. So I was able to pull snippets right from their actual workbooks, put them on my Jamboard, and give them examples with what we would actually be doing in school.

Later on, during this pandemic time, I was able to go to a professional development for Pear Deck, which was an add-on extension for Google Slides, which basically made the slides live.

So, once I had this technology, I had my Jamboard. I had Google Meet. Basically, I took everything that we would do normally in the classroom and developed it into what we were doing virtually. So I would have a “Do Now” every day. I would move onto my guided practices, during, you know, I would use my Jamboard as examples. And I would have my students do their work on Pear Deck. And this gave me an opportunity to see their work live.

Now, when the independent practice came around, that was even better. Because, again, I could see their live work. I could see what they were doing. They could ask me questions, just like we would in the classroom, and basically it was straight forward formative assessment. You know, they would go through the work, ask questions, and I could provide the feedback to them right away.

So using all these different technologies definitely helped my students, 1. Keep the structure of a normal school day with our “Do Now,” our guided practice, independent practice. I would have an exit ticket. It let me differentiate, where if a student was doing really well with a topic, I would unlock the slides and they could go through and do the work as they would go through it. If they understood, they flew. If they were struggling, I would be able to see that right away, and then I would do more individualized work.

So as tough as it was not being in the classroom, using the technologies that were provided to me and that I was becoming familiar with, really let my students keep their structure. They were learning new material just like we would be during class. So with all of this craziness that’s been going on, my students still were able to get a little something out of it.

So for the future, I just really hope that as educators, we’re given the opportunities to continue working with various technologies. Given professional development on how to use it. And, you know, just given opportunities to -- to take a look at different technologies that may help, just in case something like this happens again.

Thank you so much for having me, and have a great day.

Alamelu Sundaram-Walters, ESL Teacher

Alamelu: This is Alemelu Sundaram-Walters. I am an ESL teacher in the Mount Laurel School District.

And some word of encouragement I have for you are just to know that we are all experience this together. You are not alone. Just remember that…we’re all feeling the same way. If some of you are on any form of social media, you can always, uh, message or reach out to educators on Twitter. Or just, uh, call a friend.

And just know that there’s always someone there for you. Stick with it and just take care of yourself. Bye.

Leigh Ann Matthews, K12 ESL Instructional Coach

Leigh Ann: Hi everyone. My name is Leigh Ann Matthews and I’m a K-12 ESL Instructional Coach in Bridgewater-Raritan.

I just wanted to say that I’m so inspired by all of you. One of the things that I’ve noticed the most is how much everyone is supporting and sharing on social media and in their districts. It’s really inspiring to see everyone reaching out, connecting, and just trying to help one another. Whether it’s sharing resources or different websites, or just the general information.

I’m hoping that this level of collaboration and support will continue even when this pandemic subsides. I wish you all the best. I hope that you continue to collaborate and make the time to build relationships with each other through Google Meet or through Zoom. That’s something that I found to be very beneficial with my staff and also with my families and students in the district.

Stay safe.

[end of section]


Ken: I’d like to thank everyone who took part in this episode. All of the educators who took the time to record voice memos for us to hear. And to Cory Radisch, as well, for joining me and having such a thoughtful dialogue.

I also want to thank all of you out there in New Jersey who have made this year something in which students are still able to engage in learning. They’re still able to experience equitable opportunity. And they’re still able to engage socially with their fellow students. You all inspire us at the Department to continue our work.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third-Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone, in the Apple podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts so that you can get new episodes when they are released.

Also, please leave us a review through the Apple podcast app on your iPhone. It is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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